Isn't it funny how being in a certain place at the right time leads to something unexpected?
Such was the case for this baseball fan/historian this past summer while attending a San Francisco Giants-Philadelphia Phillies game in Philly.
While waiting for the gate to open while a friend looked around, I ran into a gentleman named John Barr.
It turned out that Barr was a Giants follower from way back.
Barr counted Bobby Thomson - he of the famous 1951 "The Giants Win The Pennant! The Giants Win The Pennant!" home run fame - as a friend.
Barr, a Giants fan since 1947 who lives in New Jersey and member of the New York Giants Historical Society and New York Giants Preservation Society as well as the Society for American Baseball Research, keeps in touch with Hall of Famer Monte Irvin.
After regaling me with stories of games and players that I had only read about or witnessed on grainy films, Barr made a promise.
He said he would send me a first-person story about his relationship with Irvin. This was in early August.
Well, the story did arrive last week.
And to think: If I had gone to another gate or arrived earlier or later, I would have missed meeting the author.
Below is Barr's story.
Please enjoy. I know I did.
MONTE IRVINBy John Barr The movie “42” about Jackie Robinson and his breaking into the Major Leagues was an excellent film and it brought back memories of my friend and member of the Baseball Hall of Fame Monford Merrill “Monte” Irvin.
Monte as of this moment is the oldest living member of the Hall of Fame at 94.
As a New York Baseball Giant fan going back into the late forty’s I was thrilled several years ago when Stuart Leeds, President of the New York Giant Historical Society asked me if I would pick up Monte at Newark Airport and drive him to his niece’s house in Orange, New Jersey where he will stay that night prior to joining the Society at a restaurant in New York to talk to us about his baseball career.
Not only did I drive him that night but was asked to pick him up the following morning and take him to and from his speaking engagement.
What an experience for a person that idolized the Giants and all of the players.
After I picked him up he asked if we could take a short ride around Orange and he directed me up and down streets pointing out houses where his friends from high school and others lived. He had an unbelievable memory.
Monte like Jackie was a great athlete starring at Orange High where he earned 16 letters in four sports baseball, basketball, football and track and excelled in college at Lincoln University.
In fact for many years he held the New Jersey record for javelin. If you go to the new arena in Newark his picture participating in various sports is displayed throughout.
Monte was unique as he played in both the Negro and Major Leagues starring where ever he played. His first stop was with the Newark Eagles of the Negro League in 1938 and he was on that team until he joined the service in 1942.
He led the Eagles in hitting in 1940-41 with averages of .422 and .396. Monte played with and against some of the finest ball players during that time like Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell or Henry Pop Lloyd to name a few.
I asked him on our way to New York who he thought was the greatest player he saw or played with or against and he answered without hesitation, “Without a doubt my roommate Willie Mays who joined the Giants in 1951. Willie could do it all hit, run, field, throw and played with such enthusiasm. He was wonderful to watch.”
“However,” he added, “If players like Satchel, Josh or Pop were given a chance to play in the Majors you might have seen a new record book as they were fantastic players.”
After the war Monte returned to the Eagles and batting .401 and led his team in winning the Negro World Series by beating the Kansas City Monarchs while batting .462 with three home runs. He was a five time Negro League All Star. In 1945 he was approached by Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey about being signed to a major league contract.
Monte felt that he wasn’t ready to play at that level so soon after leaving the service. (1) However, the major problem wasn’t Monte but Newark Eagles Manager, Effa Manley, who refused to allow Rickey to sign Irvin without compensation. Rickey had already signed Robinson without paying for his rights to his major league club.
Said Irvin, “… from a purly business standpoint, Mrs. Manley felt that Branch Rickey was obligated to compensate her for my contract. That position probably delayed my entry into the major leagues … Mrs. Manley told Rickey that he had taken Don Newcombe for no money but she wasn’t going to let him take me without some compensation. Furthermore, if he tried to do it, she would sue and fight him in court … Rickey contacted her to say he was no longer interested in me the New York Giants eventually picked up my contract … (2) Both Monte and Jackie were outstanding baseball players with great credentials in hitting, fielding and running the bases.
The one big difference was that Jackie was very aggressive and outspoken while Monte was laid back and very soft spoken. Branch Rickey had a tough decision to make in choosing a Negro ballplayer from several great players but history showed that he made the right decision.
Most of those that played in the Negro Leagues thought that Monte would be the first Negro player to break the color barrier.
“I have no regrets as Jackie was the right choice to be selected. He had the toughness to take all the abuse he received during the first two years and turn the other cheek,” said Monte.
Monte continued to play in the Negro League and earned MVP honors while playing in the Puerto Rican Winter League in 1945 and 1946 and he spent 1948 and 1949 playing winter ball in Cuba with his good friend Roy Campanella.
Finally, the Giants paid Manley $5,000 for his contract. On July 8, 1949, as a thirty year old Monte played his first game as a member of the New York Giant Baseball Team hitting as a pinch hitter. He was sent down to the Jersey City, a Giants farm team, in 1950 but was recalled after 18 games when he was hitting .510 with 10 home runs. . Monte played with the Giants until 1955 when he was traded to the Chicago Cubs where he finished his career in 1956.
He will be best remember for leading the Giants in 1951 from 13-1/2 games back to beating the Dodgers in the famous playoffs when Bobby Thomson hit the “Shot heard around the world”. That year he hit 24 home runs with a league leading 121 RBI’s. Also, in the 1951 World Series against the Yankees he had 11 hits, batting .458, but is most remembered for his steal of home which had not taken place in a World Series game in 38 years. He placed third in the MVP ballot that year won by Roy Campanella.
Yogi Berra, Yankee catcher when asked about Monte’s steal of home and that by Jackie in another World Series game is very emphatic in his reply, “Jackie was out but Monte was safe.”
In his short career Monte batted .293, with 99 home runs, 443 RBI, 366runs scored, 731 hits, 97 doubles, 32 triples and 28 stolen bases. After retiring Monte went to work as a scout for the Mets and in 1968 until 1984 was an assistant to Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973 based on his play in the Negro League. He is also part of a great trivia question, ‘What was the year that an entire outfield was made up of Negro ballplayers and who were they?’ The answer is 1951 World Series with Monte in left, Willie Mays in center and Hank Thompson in right field.
I still keep in touch with Monte and usually see him at the Pop Lloyd Symposium held annually in Atlantic City. In 2006 the Essex County New Jersey Board of Freeholders wanted to name the county park across the street from where he lived in Orange after him and after inspecting it he told them unless they clean it up he doesn’t want his name associated with it.
The County received a grant of $1,272,557 that was used to fix and upgrade the park and today Orange has a beautiful park called the ‘Monte Irvin Orange Park.'
I was proud to attend the dedication on May 16, 2006 as a friend of Monte’s and sat next to my other Giant hero Bobby Thomson.
During my last conversation with Monte he said that he is getting too old to travel and he has a hard time seeing but he promised me that next year at 95 he will be at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown to welcome the new inductees.
I also promised Monte I will join him in Cooperstown in 2014. I told my wife Francoise to pack our bags as we are going to the Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Cooperstown in 2014. 1. Baseball in Wartime – Biographies/Irvin2. Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture